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UNH men’s hockey team rediscovers groove for stretch run

The knot at the top of Hockey East is tightening, home ice in the playoffs is far from guaranteed and the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team hasn’t won a game in three weeks.

Sounds like cause for concern, worry and alarm. But when Coach Dick Umile discusses the situation, dread and panic are replaced by poise and confidence.

“We’re down to six games here, and we have a shot at winning (the Hockey East

regular season),” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good spot.”

The circumstances aren’t anything new: The No. 5 Wildcats (16-8-4, 11-7-3) have been in the growing pack atop Hockey East for weeks now, just one hot weekend away from taking control in the conference race. But it’s a situation that can be viewed in different lights, and the glass was looking empty when goalies like Merrimack College’s Sam Marotta and Providence College’s Jon Gillies were stymieing the UNH offense and holding the Wildcats to unfulfilling losses and ties.

That changed last weekend, when UNH traveled to Boston College to face the country’s fourth-ranked team and came away with a hard-fought 4-4 tie, during which the Wildcats rallied from a third-period deficit and put an end to scoring woes that saw them limited to four goals over three games.

“I think we were uptight a little bit, frustrated not scoring goals,” said Umile, whose team plays at Vermont tonight and tomorrow. “(The BC game has) probably taken a little bit of the tightness, grabbing the stick, away. You’re a little bit more relaxed. … It’s only a couple of days, but we’ve had a couple of good days where we feel good about that.”

The offensive breakthrough validated what Umile kept saying while the team was going through what he called a “funk.” He insisted there was no instant remedy for the struggles, that if the team kept getting the puck to the net and working hard in the offensive zone, the points would come.

Against BC, the work paid off. Dan Correale scored after he won a race from center ice to the goal line for a loose puck that he then threw on the net, and Grayson Downing and Matt Willows both scored when they jumped on rebounds and were able to jam the puck by Eagles goalie Parker Milner up close.

Not exactly sniping, but as sophomore forward Casey Thrush said, just seeing the puck go in can be much of the battle in ending a slump.

“We’ve had a lot of success scoring goals at multiple points this season, especially early, so I think that we know that it’s there,” he said. “It gets the monkey off your back a little bit when you get a couple of lucky ones.”

Goumas in a rut

The dry spell for the UNH offense was only a few games long, but for Kevin Goumas the slump’s been going on for more than a month.

The junior forward, who was one of the country’s hottest scorers in the first half of the season, has been absent from recent scoring sheets. He hasn’t registered a point since UNH’s last win, over Northeastern Feb. 1, and he hasn’t scored since a Jan. 19 loss to Providence.

He still leads the team with 32 points (a testament to his red-hot start), but any prolonged struggles will be a difficult obstacle for the UNH offense. The Wildcats’ attack goes as he goes: While Goumas totaled 24 points through the first 15 games, UNH averaged 3.6 points per game; he’s had eight points in the 13 games since, and UNH’s average is down to 2.85.

“He touches the puck a lot, and he didn’t touch the puck a whole heck of a lot on Sunday,” Umile said. “We need him touching the puck, making plays. … That’s a little bit of a rut that he’s in, so hopefully he’ll come out of that.”

Goumas said he’s felt himself straining at times, and that getting back to the free-flowing style he had early on will be the key in getting back on track.

“Maybe I’ve got to loosen up my hands on the stick a little bit. Not be so uptight, just let myself play,” he said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going right, you get a little frustrated. That’s not healthy when you’re playing the game of hockey. It’s all mental, you’ve just got to let things go and have a clear mind.”

Changes ahead

While the race at the top of Hockey East is tight, a similar battle is occurring at the bottom of the standings, where Massachusetts, Maine and Northeastern are within two points of each other in the fight for the final conference tournament playoff spot.

That’s a struggle that won’t take place in the future, as Notre Dame’s arrival next year means all 11 teams will qualify for the postseason in Hockey East, currently the only division in college hockey that doesn’t allow each of its teams to make the playoffs. It’s a change that was announced in September, but with the final Hockey East season under the current regulations winding down, Umile took the opportunity to talk about the approaching year.

“I think it’s a good thing. Teams play all year, they deserve to be in some kind of a playoff,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure what the new tournament structure will be. “Especially the league this year. That’s how we feel about our league. How do you keep two out?”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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